'Go for It, Kid': Looking Back on Five Decades of the Science Talent Search

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Clifford Lee Wang loves tennis and plays the piano with polish, Jeremy Randall Riddell toots the trumpet, backpacks and raises chickens. Susan Elaine Criss has earned seven varsity letters in track and soccer and has twice captained her high school soccer team.

Not exactly your description of bookworms.

These students and their fellow finalists in the 50th Westinghouse Science Talent Search form an eclectic group of teenagers: They're as exuberant about DNA as dancing, as likely to talk about betacarotene as baseball.

Nextweek, the 40 finalists will follow in the footsteps of 1,960 previous Westinghouse award winners since the 1940s, travelling to Washington, D.C., to exhibit their work to the public and compete for scholarships awarded at a black tie, grand finale banquet.

And if they engage in a few youthful pranks on the side, such as a late-night climb into the lap of the Lincoln Memorial statue, they'll only be echoing some of the antics of their predecessors.

The talent search (minus the visits to Lincoln's lap) originated with two ex-reporters who, in the late 1930s, sought to identify and encourage budding science talent among high school students. One was Watson Davis, the first radio reporter to specialize in science, who in 1933 became director of Science Service, Inc. - a nonprofit foundation dedicated to improving public understanding of science and which publishes SCIENCE NEWS

The other was G. Edward Pendray, a former science editor for the New York Herald Tribune, who joined the Westinghouse Electric Corp. in 1936 as special assistant to its president. He and Davis met in New York City at the 1939 World's Fair, where, thanks to Pendray's efforts, Westinghouse displayed the winning entries of a science fair open to New York City high school students.

The World's Fair of '39, boasting such marvels as the first television sets and a shimmering fountain of dancing water plumes, reflected the new optimism of a nation recovering from the Great Depression. It was there that Pendray and Davis decided science education in the high schools could no longer be left to languish.

At the time, fewer than 1,000 of the nation's 25,000 high schools employed trained science teachers or even offered rudimentary science courses. Often, a meager curriculum labeled as "science" was relegated to the athletic coach.

"Watson and I agreed that science was too important for the nation and the coming generation to be neglected in the high schools," Pendray later recalled. So they devised a plan to publicize the importance of science education by encouraging teenagers to design and perform their own experiments. The promise of college scholarship money would provide a financial incentive for the students, they reasoned, and science teachers could earn recognition through their students' awards.

"Having the competition givest the teachers a tangible target for students to shoot for," says G. Reynolds Clark, president of the Westinghouse Foundation. Westinghouse has provided more than $2.8 million in scholarship and cash awards to talent search winners over the past 50 years.

"Watson Davis always said, 'Kids should get their hands dirty and their minds disturbed,'" says Dorothy Reynolds Schriver, who became Davis' personal secretary in 1941 and who directed the talent search from 1958 to 1986. Since 1986, Carol Luszcz of Science Service has administered the program.

The first Westinghouse Science Talent Search began early in 1942, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the nation into World War II. The program's organizers contacted every U.S. high school directly while also spreading the word through a national organization of high school science clubs, headquartered at Science Service. That year's competition drew some 3,000 applications but did not involve student research projects. …